It had only been an hour and-a-half since I closed my eyes when the second artillery barrage began hitting the company. Muffled by my deep sleep, the blast of the first explosion sounded more like a jeep backfiring than another rocket slamming into what was left of the Day Room's roof. In my dream I saw myself standing at the window of my hootch watching an old jeep as it chugged along the company road. Puffs of black smoke were erupting from its exhaust pipe.
It wasn't until a few seconds later, hearing the sound of debris raining down on the roof above me, and feeling my cot vibrate as if we'd been hit by an earthquake, did I begin to realize we were under another attack. Quickly coming out of my deep sleep, the jeep on the road disappeared and my eyes shot open. The only light in the hootch came from a raging fire several hootches away.
Since Charlie's attack on the air base my first night in Bien Hoa I had trained myself to snap out of a dream the instant I heard M-16's firing or the company air raid siren winding up. This being another occasion to challenge my 7 months of conditioning, I ordered myself to wake up, get up, and run to the bunker. But that was easier thought than done. Heavy fumes from burning wood, clothing, and bodies left over from the first attack a few hours before had starved my brain of oxygen, paralyzing my entire body.
I was laying on my back when I fell asleep. Because of the smoke, my lungs were filling only half-way. My chest felt like it was being weighed down by a 300 pound Sumo wrestler. The blood pounding in temples felt like 2 people with baseball bats were slamming both sides of my head.
Thinking I might be able to jar myself into full consciousness, I tried shaking my head from side to side but it barely moved. The muscles in my neck were not responding. Part of me wondered if I was having a weird nightmare and part of me wondered if my spinal cord had been severed by a piece of shrapnel. I began to worry. I'd never had any trouble getting my body to do what I wanted, but now was the worst time for it to stop working.
I thought about what it must have been like for people who died in house fires. My paralysis made me aware that even if they awoke in time to get outside they were probably unable to move because of smoke asphyxiation. I thought about what it felt like to see flames rapidly approaching and not be able to get away from them.
Moments after the first explosion, another rocket hit. The shock wave sent my cot bouncing off the floor a second time. The ground shook longer this time. That meant the rockets were walking toward me, not away.
The heat and smoke from the fireball trailing the second shock wave rushed into the window above my head. Following them, the sounds of what seemed like a hundred screams drowned out the company siren just starting to wind up.
Although I couldn't move, I was now fully conscious. I told myself to try getting up again but the pressure from the concussion kept me pressed to the mattress.
During my sleep, my left arm had become wedged under the back of my neck. Feeling the pillow under my arm, I tried wiggling my fingers to verify I had control of my hand, but they were still asleep. It felt like a hundred pins and needles were being stuck in each finger. I told myself to keep wiggling until the prickling faded. When it did, I grabbed the pillow and pulled it over my face.
After taking a few shallow breaths, my eyes still shut tight, I grabbed hold of the side of my cot with my right hand and tried to roll over, but no luck. While asleep, I had taken in too much smoke. It must have been clogging every capillary in my body.
Lack of air reminded me of the catfish I used to catch at my Aunt's lake in Michigan. I remember yanking them off the hook and tossing them on the bank. Their long whiskers would make chicken scratches in the mud as they flopped around, suffocating. My need for oxygen made me feel like those catfish. I told myself if I ever made it out of V'nam I'd never go fishing again.
After resting a bit longer I tried getting up again, this time slower. Pulling my left arm down to my side, I pushed my hand under my butt, palm down. My right hand, already laying at my side, slid under the opposite side. Pushing down on my stomach, I pressed against the mattress with every ounce of strength I could muster. Slowly, I began to feel the weight on my chest give in.
Feeling my head begin to rise off the cot, my arms began to throb. My heart felt like it had split in half and moved into both my wrists. Feeling the pulsation increase, I knew I had only a second or two of strength left. I thought about giving up and trying a 3d time. Then I thought about another rocket flying in. No way, I told myself, it's going to have to be now!
I told myself to use every ounce of strength I had left in me to one, final push. Throwing myself up and over to my right, I flopped on my stomach, my head faced the window. The legs of my cot banged on the floor. My pillow right behind it.
My chest heaved. Perspiration from my forehead began soak the sheet under my face. Mixed with the residue of smoke that had settled on my skin while I slept, my sweat stung like acid. Now more than ever, I told myself, I'm going to have to get my ass out of here. I'm starting to become my own worst enemy.
Forcing my hands up to my shoulders, I pushed them under my chest. My head felt like it was rolling on waves. My throat burned.
Realizing I wouldn't be able to concentrate on breathing while at the same time trying to get up, I took in another short breath then held it. I knew with all the smoke in my lungs I wouldn't be able to hold it more than 15 seconds, maybe 20 if I worked at it. I also knew that if I wasn't up by the time I got to 10, I'd still be flat on my face when and if the next rocket hit.
Pressing my palms against the mattress again, I started my count.
"One thousand, one." I spread my fingers.
"One thousand, two." I sucked in my stomach.
"One thousand, three." I extended my elbows.
"One thousand, four." I pressed down on my forehead.
"One thousand, five." I began pushing against my palms.
"One thousand, six." I pushed even harder.
"One thousand, seven." I felt myself rising.
"One thousand, eight." I pulled my knees toward my chest.
"One thousand, nine." I knew I was making it.
"One thousand, ten." I was up on all fours.
The instant I discovered I'd made it, I opened my eyes. Huge balls of thick black smoke were rolling through the window. Seeing one heading straight for my face, I tried to squeeze my eyes shut before the burn started but I was a split-second too late. It felt like acid being poured into them. and rubbing didn't help. It only spread the smoke particles across the surface.
Realizing the sting wouldn't go away before I could get out, I slowly opened my eyes. After a few moments, the burn became tolerable.
Barely squinting, I looked for the table next to the head of my cot. I could see my wristwatch laying on its side. Pulling my arm up, I pushed it toward the table. My hand landed on the watch. Grabbing it, I dragged my hand back.
Taking another breath for strength, I pulled the watch up to my face. Holding it about 3 inches from my nose, I turned it one way then another hoping to catch some peripheral light on it. The moment I caught enough light to read it, a 3d explosion lit up the hootch just on the other side of the one next door. The flash of light coming from the fireball turned everything bright red. An instant later the crystal face on the watch was shattered dead center by a microscopic piece of shrapnel. The hands froze on 1:53 AM. A half-second later the watch was torn from my hand by another piece of shrapnel. Hitting the floor behind me, I turned to see where the watch landed. Just as I turned I could see Jimmie execute a perfect roll-out. He was responding as I should have.
Suddenly, the shock wave hit. Tossing the front end of my cot off the floor, I quickly leaned forward using my weight to force it back down. As it crashed to the floor my grip broke loose. My body swayed uncontrollably.
I reached down and grabbed the rails of the cot again. Looking up toward the window the bright red fireball rose high into the sky creating distorted shadows on the 2-by-fours lining the windows of the hootch next door. Its heat burned my chin then slowly moved up my face. I turned my head down toward my cot to keep it from burning my eyes.
Following the shock wave came more screams. The men burning in that explosion were adding their pleas for help to those from the first 2. It sounded as if every voice was yelling directly into my ears.
Feeling something hot roll down both sides of my neck, I reached up and rubbed my cheek. Squinting at my finger, it looked red. An instant later I went completely deaf. Every sound around me vanished as if someone in outer space had turned a dial shutting off the volume all over the world. I closed my eyes to make sure I wasn't imagining my deafness. I had never experienced complete silence before. I tried to remember the last sounds I heard but my mind was a blank. It was like trying to imagine seeing something I'd never seen.
Squinting over at Jimmie's cot a few feet away, his limp body appeared unconscious. A cloud of smoke suddenly filled the space between us, blocking him out. I tried climbing off my cot but my body was still frozen. I needed more air for energy.
I turned to look over my other shoulder. The entire hootch was filled with smoke. Looking down toward the floor, it streamed out from under my cot. Afraid that I might be suffocated, I pulled my right hand up to my face and fanned the air around my head. But that was futile. Through the sweat and tears in my eyes I could see I was only passing smoke from one side of my face to the other.
Suddenly, what felt like a huge hand shoving me on my left shoulder, I lost balance and began falling towards the floor. Grabbing the side of the cot with my left hand to catch myself, the entire frame rose up with me.
Feeling myself crashing downward, I held out my right hand to meet the concrete floor. The combination of smoke and darkness camouflaged it from view. Unable to judge my distance, I wasn't sure when I'd hit the floor until after it hit me. A second later it did. My arm buckled from the weight of my body and the cot.
Rolling to my side, I landed on my back. The back of my head slammed hard. I could almost taste the concrete in my mouth as my teeth bit down. A second later, a 4th explosion demolished the hootch next door. This time, not only the blast of the shock wave, but what felt like a million particles of microscopic dust showered over and around me burning into my clothing and skin. Sounding like a ton of rice pellets striking the floor, each particle glowed white-hot. My body felt as if every vein inside me had exploded flooding waves of hot blood all over me.
Even stronger this time, the shock wave pushed me into the floor. Looking up at the window, I could see the screenwire melt with the heat. Huge chunks of shrapnel pockmarked the 2-by-fours lining the windows throwing hundreds of splinters into the air. Instantly, I pulled my hands over my eyes. After a few moments I pulled them down. Just as I did, cascading waves of bright white and yellow flashes blinded me. Settling down, everything turned red again.Quickly turning my head away from the heat of the fireball my temple slammed against the floor. Then, just as quickly, everything began to grow dark. The red light seemed to fade-out as if a dark blanket was being passed over my face. Slowly, the light faded darker and darker until finally, it disappeared completely and everything went black.
My brain seemed to detach itself from my body, drifting in a void. Although I knew I was thinking, the sensation of complete darkness and silence wasn't the same as visualizing my thoughts when I was awake, or feeling my dreams when I was asleep.
Thinking I must be dead and floating somewhere in Limbo, I remembered others in V'nam who had spoken of feeling this empty sensation just before they thought they were about to die. They said that when you know you're going down for the count you can hear yourself think but you can't feel your thoughts. They said if you thought about food you didn't feel hunger. If you thought about snow you couldn't feel cold. If you thought about your girlfriend you couldn't feel your dick get hard. They said time would seem to stand still and you could see your whole life pass before your eyes.
I wondered if I was passing between the instant of life and death. I looked into my thoughts for images of my past but nothing materialized. All I could see was darkness. I wondered if everybody else was wrong about seeing your past or if I was dying a different kind of death.
Suddenly a cold chill ran over my body. The darkness around me began to spin as if I was caught in a huge vortex. As the spinning got faster, small dimly lit lights began to flash on and off in my brain. Trying to stop the spin I tried concentrating on one of the lights. The more I did, the slower I spinned. Then one of the lights jumped towards me. Surrounding me, it got brighter, almost blinding. I squeezed my eyes. An instant later, the brightness faded. Opening my eyes I looked up and saw the face of a man smiling down at me. Looking to my side I could see his large hands holding onto a horizontal wooden beam attached to rows and rows of round wooden bars running vertically below me. Looking down, the rows seemed to disappear beneath a white ocean. Standing on the ocean were 2 tiny feet. Looking up again, the man's face disappeared.
I was back in the vortex again where another light enveloped me. This time I knew where I was. Standing on a patch of grass, I was looking at my mother. She was looking through a camera. I could hear her voice yelling to me to stand still. Looking down at myself, I was wearing a Boy Scout uniform. The instant I looked back to the camera it disappeared.
Another light surrounded me. Looking around, I seemed to be riding in something that rolled. Looking down at both sides, I could see wheels in front and in behind me. Directly in front of me was a blue metal tray. Leaning on it were 2 tiny hands. One hand was holding a half-eaten cookie.
Looking back at the wheels again, they disappeared.
I was now standing in a room. A large birthday cake was sitting in the middle of a table. The table was surrounded by faces I hadn't seen since my brothers 16th birthday. Then everything suddenly went black again. The lights were gone. The vortex was gone. There was nothing.
It seemed like an eternity of darkness had passed when I felt something nudging my arm, shaking me back to consciousness. A dark red glow seemed to appear in the distance. Getting closer, it grew brighter. As the red turned to pink, then to white, sound also began to return. Visualizing a huge hand turning a dial, the sounds around me grew louder. Then, in a flash, I was back. I could feel smoke burning my eyes again. The campus sirens began winding up again. Voices in the hootch next door were screaming for help. Others were asking to die.
Feeling something pushing against my right shoulder, I turned my head toward it. Looking down, it was the end of Jimmie's Montagnard crossbow. Jimmie was under his cot. He was using it to get my attention.
"Hey Phill....wake up....Phill....Are you alright?"
From the sound of his voice I could tell he was afraid I wouldn't answer.
"Yeah man, I'm alright."
My voice was still hoarse but I could hear my words.
"I thought you were dead. You weren't moving."
"Yeah, I thought I was dead too."
"What're you gonna do?"
"I think it's time for us to get the hell outta here."
"Maybe we should wait a few minutes."
"No, You can wait if you want to! I'm rolling! This place is gonna go up!"
He didn't answer.
Lifting myself to my elbows, my head was now in a dense cloud of smoke. Laying back down, I looked up. A thick layer of smoke hung just above me.
"You're gonna have to crawl out." Jimmie yelled. "All the smoke is right over our heads."
"There's too much ---- on the floor to crawl. I'm gonna have to get up."
Taking a deep breath I turned on my stomach. In one move I pushed up on my hands pulling my knees to my chest, the balls of my feet landing on the floor. Pushing against my hands again, I lifted my back. I was now in a crouch. Wheeling around I reached my hand for the table behind me. It was now on the floor.
"What're you doing?" Jimmie yelled.
"Looking for my ----ing eyeglasses. They were here on the table."
Feeling around the floor, my hand felt a temple frame. Picking it up, I looked at it. That's all there was to it.
"What's wrong?" Jimmie yelled.
"------- glasses are broken."
Feeling around again, I found the other half. "I got 'em!"
Standing up, I waved at the smoke around my head. Fire burning in the hootch next door lit up the upper half of the hootch around me. Looking behind me, my wall locker was on the floor again.
"C'mon Jimmie, I'm up! Let's go!"
"Wait a minute....I think I hear another rocket."
I dropped to my knees.
"How can you hear a rocket through all this noise?"
Suddenly a loud whoosh ripped through the air behind the hootch. Just after that, an enormous thud.
I paused for a moment.
"No explosion! That's not a rocket. Part of the roof probably fell."
In the distance the airbase sirens started up.
I yelled to Jimmie. "I'll see you in the bunker, dude. I'm history here."
He didn't reply.
Pushing aside a fallen wall locker, a feeling of deja vu passed through my mind. I recalled going through this routine earlier.
Fixing my eyes on the tiny square of light coming through the front door, I groped through the darkness watching as it grow larger as I moved closer.
Now 5 feet away, the familiar sight of the bunker just outside began to materialize.
Reaching the door, I pushed it away. It hung on its one hinge.
Stumbling into the sandbarrels, I looked over my left shoulder toward the Orderly Room. The campus was filled with smoke again. Hospital ambulances with their sirens blaring and red lights spinning were just arriving. A half dozen bodies were laying on the ground. 20 feet away, 3 guys were huddled over another body tying a belt around his thigh. His lower leg was gone. Fires in the shower room, the Day Room and the 3 hootches next to mine were burning out of control. Jeeps racing down the road to my right were pulling in front of me. One of the drivers jumped out and ran over.
"Hey brother, are you okay?"
"Yeah," I coughed. "But over there, there's a guy over there with no leg."
Looking to where I pointed, he took off. Sliding to his knees, he helped the other guys lift the GI onto a blanket. Each one grabbing a corner, they quick-marched toward an ambulance. Another GI, running from one of the bunkers, yelled for them to wait. Stopping to see what he wanted, the GI ran up and tossed a severed leg onto the blanket. The wounded GI on the blanket grabbed the leg and yelled for them to haul ass. It was Armand, a landline tech. It was surprising he was still conscious, let alone barking orders.
Another jeep pulled up. 2 GI's carrying flashlights ran towards me. Shining his flashlight in my face, one of them asked me what happened. I yelled for him to get his ----ing light out of my eyes.
"Down there!" I pointed to the Orderly Room. "Down there!"
They ran toward the front of the campus.
Taking deep breaths, the smoke in my lungs was finally beginning to clear. Now partially recovered, I pushed myself off the sandbarrels and staggered toward the bunker. As I crossed the sidewalk a man ran out of the microwave hootch and fell to the ground, his clothes on fire. I turned to run towards him. Then more men running out of the hootch carrying blankets dived on top of him, smothering the flames.
Right behind them, another man ran out. It was Mike. His entire body covered with ash, he was hysterical. Running towards me. I jumped to get out of his way. Right behind Mike was Ronnie. Ronnie tackled him to the ground.
"Help me! He saw Ogden! He's freaking out!"
I grabbed one of Mike's arms.
"What about Ogden!" I yelled.
"A rocket hit behind his cot. It took off his head!"
I dropped to my knees and grabbed Mike's loose arm. 2 more men running from the hootch helped us. They dragged him to the bunker.
Another ambulance pulled up on the road near the bunker. 3 men carrying stretchers ran out and whipped past me.
Reaching the bunker, I dropped on the bench inside. The air was clear inside. Taking in deep, rapid breaths, I used it to clear my lungs. Suddenly Flip ran in holding his wrist. His arm was burned from the elbow to the shoulder. A deep laceration over his biceps was cut to the bone. Falling on me, I helped him to the bench.
"What happened?" I asked, pulling off my shirt.
"Your hootch didn't get hit, did it?"
"No, but the shrapnel flew everywhere. I was standing up when the first one hit. It went through 3 wall lockers before it hit me."
Tearing off my shirt sleeve, I ripped the ends then tied it around his arm. His breathing was deep and irregular.
"You hit a home run with this one. Does it hurt?"
"Naw, I think it cut the nerves."
"It's not bleeding," I told him. "But that sand's got to come out."
"Let me sit for a minute. Then I'll run to an ambulance."
Tying one of the ends down, I pulled a shoestring from one of my boots. Tying it in a circle I looped it over his head.
"This'll make a sling, let's go."
"Where's Jimmie?" He asked.
"Still inside. Where's Rome and Randy?"
"They're still inside too."
"What about Ernie and the others?"
"I don't know if they're in there or not. Jimmie's the only one I talked to."
"You're gonna have to go back in there and get them out."
"Yeah, I know. I was just hoping they'd come out on their own."
Standing up, I looked outside the bunker door. A huge water tanker had pulled up near the Orderly Room. A fire truck from the airbase was parked next to it. Several Air Force firefighters in asbestos suit were pouring streams of water onto the shower house.
I looked back at Flip, his hand shook uncontrollably.
"C'mon dude, we're going to get you to an ambulance first."
"No, first I'll try to get Rome and Randy out."
"What about that arm?"
"Nobody ever died from a cut on the arm."
"Then let's make it quick."
Crouching over, I ran back to the hootch. Reaching the sandbarrels, I turned to see Flip ducking inside Rome's hootch.
Jumping up, I ran around the barrels and grabbed the handle on the door. The wind had blown it shut.
I yelled inside calling Jimmie's name.
"You better get out here mother----er! If I get killed it's gonna be your fault!"
Jimmie had apparently been struggling to get out when I arrived. Just after I finished yelling, his thin black face pushed through a cloud of smoke on the other side of the door. He looked like an ashen ghost sticking his head through a thick, graveyard mist.
The whites of his eyes were red from smoke burn. I jumped back pulling the door open with me. Although that wasn't fast enough for him. He barreled into the door so hard he took it off its remaining hinge.
Falling backwards, I caught myself on the sandbarrel behind me. An instant later Jimmie was in the bunker. Still holding the door in both hands, I tossed it to the ground. Looking back into the hootch I called Ernie's name.
Again, one by one, they stormed out. Paul was the last out this time. Running right over my foot he felt like a freight train rolled over it. I limped back to the bunker.
Flip was back too. I looked around for Rome and Randy. They weren't there.
"Rome and Randy said they won't come out this time."
"They said they don't care anymore."
"What d'you mean they don't care?"
"That's what they said, they just don't give a ----."
"Well we've got to get them out of there....I'm going for them."
I got up and walked out the door. Flip yelled for me to forget it. "Don't go.....they're not coming out I tell you."
I turned around. "Some of you guys should get him to an ambulance. I'm going."
"Wait a minute!" Jimmie yelled. "I'll go with you!"
Running over to the hootch, I yelled inside. "Let's go Randy...let's go Rome!"
Jimmie tried calling. "Hey in there! Everybody out!"
Still no answer.
"You think they're hurt?" He asked.
Looking inside, the hootch appeared undamaged. Except for a tiny patch of red light peeking through a crack in the curtains surrounding their cubicle, the rest of the hootch was pitch black.
"No, I can hear their record player." Pharaoh Sander's "Master Plan" was playing. Opening the door, we walked in.
The instant we stepped inside we were hit by a wall of thick marijuana smoke.
"Geezus! Those guys are gettin' loaded!" Jimmie whispered.
Reaching their cubicle, I pulled open the curtains covering the entrance. The entire cubicle was bathed in red light coming from an Army lantern with a red cloth tossed over it.
Mattresses were spread over the floor and plywood walls. Along with Rome and Randy, eight other guys were crammed inside. Some were sitting, others were laying down. Several were smoking from a hash pipe, the others were holding jays. Rome and Randy had changed into their black pajamas. Everybody else was still dirty from smoke and soot.
Sitting with his back against a wall locker, Randy was the first to look up. His eyes were at half-mast. Rome was on his back reading an album cover.
"Hey dudes, the war's still going on. How come you're not coming out to the bunker?" I asked them.
"What the ---- for?" Randy answered, his speech slurred. "Charlie can get you in there too!"
"Yeah, but if this place takes a direct hit, all you dudes'll be fried Post Toasties to the max. These walls aren't gonna stop ----!"
"It doesn't matter, Phill." Rome looked up. "Charles has got the coordinates on the campus. He can hit any hootch he wants to hit and as many times as he wants to hit 'em."
"Yeah," Jimmie agreed, "But it looks like he's only been hitting the hootches. That makes the bunkers safer."
"Well it looks to us like he's only been hitting the white hootches to me." Rome replied. "Ask some of the white dudes in here."
"I looked down at Bill. His hair was still soaking wet and plastered to his forehead. Lifting his hand, he offered me his jay.
"Take a hit brother Phill. Mellow out."
I waved it off.
"You don't know if that was by intent." I looked back at Rome.
"And you don't know it wasn't." He came back.
"So you dudes are gonna sleep here tonight?" Jimmie asked.
"You can't sleep in the bunkers every night." Rome answered. "You realize that when Charles gets confirmation tomorrow morning all he has to do is set his dials the same way he did tonight and he can hit us again tomorrow night, next week, or next month. There ain't no safe place on this campus so there ain't no point in trying to hide in some ----ty, rat infested bunker."
"We've been set up dudes. Can't your brains perceive that?" Randy jumped in. "You dudes've been listening to that Uncle Tom Major. All that ---- about the Cav finding that 105 rig was bull----!"
"Yeah man. We can perceive that. He was just trying to stop a panic. But that doesn't mean you dudes have to sacrifice yourselves just because somebody wants to kill us." I came back.
"C'mon Jimmie," Rome yelled, "Why don't you try and tell us the Major told you Charlie had 2 rigs."
"I haven't talked to him since we all left."
"You know why? It's 'cause even he wasn't stupid enough to hang around."
"Well, he must be a real stupid son-of-a-bitch, 'cause he's back." I informed them. "I just saw him outside running around near the Orderly Room."
"That still doesn't mean ----," Randy dismissed me. "Maybe he came back 'cause he thinks he's gonna get a medal or something."
"Like I said, brother. We're going to get it sooner or later. If not tonight, then tomorrow night." Rome followed.
Just then I felt Jimmie tug the back of my shirt.
"C'mon man, let's go. These dudes aren't leaving."
I looked around the cubicle at each man's face. They were loaded and tired, but they were all determined. I had to accept Jimmie was right. There was no way we were going to talk them out of the hootch.
"We'll be around in case you dudes get lit up." I told them, waving goodbye.
"Yeah, well we'll be around in case you dudes get lit up too!" Rome waved.
Walking back outside we looked down the campus. The fire control team was succeeding in putting out the flames in the 3 hootches that took direct hits. A sudden change in the wind blew their spray toward us. Too late to duck, our shirts got soaked.
The choppers were blazing overhead again, their huge lights beaming down signaled our location to more emergency vehicles racing toward us.
A group of doctors were kneeling over a guy laying on a body bag. 3 medics standing over them aimed their flashlights at the man's chest. Open air surgery was the only way to save some of the guys. Most of them would probably be dead by the time the medics got them to the hospital. A row of 5 other bodies were waiting for the doctors to treat them.
A dozen other medics were running around carrying guys on stretchers or on their backs. 2 of them were carrying small plastics bags. One bag had a couple of fingers in it, another half an ear, and another a hand. Another medic carrying a clipboard tried to match the body parts with the bodies being loaded into the ambulances.
A medic running past Jimmie and I stopped to look at us. We must've looked like death warmed over. Walking over, he asked if we were wounded.
"You guys okay?"
"Yeah....we're okay." I answered.
I watched his eyes as he ran them over our bodies.
"Better hit the bunkers then. This place is a madhouse."
Jimmie and I walked slowly back to the bunker. We didn't bother to crouch this time. Paul and Ernie were standing outside watching the medics. Someone inside was screaming.
"Who's that?" I asked, not really wanting an answer.
"That Air America guy," Paul answered. "I don't know his name."
"What's he screamin' about?" Jimmie asked.
"Nothing in particular, he likes to panic."
"Anybody else in there?" I asked.
"Yeah, Robin, Jeff, and a couple more dudes."
"What're they doing?"
"Holding him down. They like to hold guys who panic."
"I told 'em to just let the dude scream but they won't listen to me." Ernie looked into the bunker. "Hell, what's he gonna do, scream in a mirror if nobody's in there listening to him?"
I sat down leaning my back against a barrel.
"Asshole night! I can't believe this ---- happened twice."
Sitting down next to me, Ernie wiped the sweat off his forehead. "We should've listened to Rome the first time and just split."
"We would've been charged with deserting under fire." Jimmie stated, also sitting down.
"You don't still believe that ---- do you?" Paul sat down.
Jimmie didn't answer.
Suddenly the Air America radio operator tore out of the bunker. Ragged and crazed, he looked like a mad man. Robin and Jeff were right behind him. Grabbing his arm, Robin tried to pull him back inside.
"Let him go!" I yelled. "There's enough medics out here. They'll catch up to him."
Robin released his arm. The radio operator ran off into the night.
"What'd you want me to do that for?" Robin yelled at me, anger in his voice.
"Why'd you let him go then?" I answered.
His face went blank.
"I hope you'd help me if I was messed up." He looked at me, his voice shaking.
"Don't worry about it," Paul told him. "You wouldn't panic. Guys from Pittsburgh just don't do that kinda thing."
"Anyway, it's too late to be a hero," Jeff sat down. "Take a seat and relax."
Robin sat down.
No one spoke for a minute or 2. Jeff broke the silence.
"So what d'you guys think? You think they'll tell us to hang around until everybody gets killed?"
"What are you, a comedian?" Jimmie asked.
"No, I'm serious. They told us not to leave after the first hit. They said everything was alright. Now they'll probably order us to hang around this time. Then 2 hours from now ten more guys'll be dead, then 2 hours later ten more, then ten more until we're all shopping at that big PX in the sky."
"Which ten though?" I asked.
"What d'you mean which ten? Any ten. Me and nine more next time. You and nine others after that."
"How do you know though. Who decides which ten?"
"God, stupid. Who else?"
"Ain't no God!" Ernie jumped in. "How could God let something like this war go on day after day?"
"Free will!" a voice answered.
Everyone looked up. It was Rome. Randy stood beside him.
Jeff applauded. "Der Fuhrer's back!"
Everyone began clapping.
"Free will!" Rome repeated. "It's our choice. We wanted to fight, that's why the war's still going on. If we weren't here, there wouldn't be a war."
"It's on our shoulders," he went on. "We can't get pissed at Nixon, Kissinger, Xuan Thuy, God, or the Young Republicans. Anything that happens here is because we made it happen."
"You talking destiny crap, dude?" Robin asked.
"It's a big play, man."
"Don't quote Shakespeare!" Jeff broke in.
"That's not Shakespeare, that's reality. This war is nothing but a weird play and it's gonna end with a VC General driving a '57 Chevy down Tudo Street. If you don't believe me look around you."
"What're you talking about man?" Jeff asked.
"I'm talking about us getting screwed because war, and not just this war, but any war is wrong. Anything that happens in this weird country is gonna turn out wrong 'cause war is wrong. and we're gonna lose 'cause we're wrong for being here."
"Oh yeah, then what about World War II? How come we won that one?"
" 'Cause we were more right than the Germans."
"Are you trying to say the VC are more right than we are?"
"Yeah, it's their civil war."
"So what were we supposed to be doing while they're killing school teachers and kids."
"None of them would've been killed if we hadn't jumped in. We should've said 'up yours' to the French and helped the North in the beginning."
"Then we would've controlled the whole ------- country!" Randy followed.
"What kinda ---- are you talking about now? Helping communists?" Jeff yelled back.
"I'm talking about rich boys getting poor boys to fight other poor boys." Rome answered.
"That's what the rich boys told you to believe."
"Then what are we supposed to believe.....according to you?"
"We should believe in fighting on the right side. We should fight for the guys who are fighting for the same thing America is really all about. and I'm not talking about the rich guys who run it. I'm talking about the poor guys who keep it running."
"The rich boys aren't trying to make V'nam democratic, that's what we're doing. The rich boys are fighting to keep the corporations running." Randy stated.
"It's stupid and we're the ones who're being stupid. We were stupid for coming here and we're more stupid for staying on this ------- campus. I say we split to the Motor Pool, grab a few trucks, and drive to the Comcenter." Rome finished.
Jimmie jumped up, a big smile spread across his face. "I can dig it! I can dig it, bro!"
"Now can we leave?" Rome asked, his face calm for the first time.
"Yeah," Jimmie stood up. "We can leave!"
Everybody stood up. Paul stuck his head in the bunker. "Rome and Jimmie said we should split. Everybody out!"
30 guys left the bunker.
Jeff walked up to Rome.
"This ain't over dude. I may be from Pittsburgh and my parents are Republicans, but they work hard. I'm not going to swallow that socialist crap as easy as some of these other guys."
Rome stared at Jeff for a moment. Then turned to look at the rest of us waiting for him on the road. Looking back at Jeff, he calmly stated, "My parents work hard too, Jeff. and there's a point there. You figure it out."
Finishing their argument, Rome and Jeff walked toward the road. Just as we were about to leave, the 1st Cav Major ran up. The CAT Lieutenant was right behind him. A white bandage was wrapped around the Major's right hand.
"Where're you men headed?" he barked.
Jimmie was the first to turn around. Raising his hand toward the Major, he motioned for him to stop. "Hold on Major! These men are under orders."
Everyone turned around. A deep quiet passed over the crowd.
Stopping just in front of Jimmie's hands, the Major yelled, "You standin' on your own legs now, 20-one?"
Jimmie stared into the Major's eyes. The Major stared back.
"Yeah, I'm standing on my own legs, and these guys are leaving."
"Then now you can tell me what your rank is?"
Jimmie stared at the Major.
Turning around, he looked at the crowd behind him. Turning back to the Major, he smiled.
"How about H.N.I.C.?"
Several people in the crowd snickered.
Glancing at the men, the Major stared back at Jimmie, the scowl on his face growing angrier.
"H.N.I.C.? What's that supposed to mean?"
"Head Nigger In Charge!"
Stunned, the Majors mouth dropped.
Jimmie then did and immediate about-face, raised his hand in the air, waved it toward the Motor Pool, then shouted "Forwaaaard Hooo!"
Following his lead, everyone ran off. The Major stood watching us with his hands on his hips.
It was under one of the light poles along the road where Jimmie noticed the dried blood streaks running down from my ears.
"Those streaks look pretty bad man, can you hear okay?"
"Yeah, But it sounds like a bell keeps ringing in the back of my head."
"There were a coupla other guys whose ears were bleeding too." Rome told me. "You better have those checked out at the hospital."
"But those dudes were in real bad shape." Randy added. "Phill said he can hear."
"Where were they?" I asked.
"On the side road near your hootch. There were 3 or four guys running around in the middle of the street with their arms stretched-out. They were yelling at the top of their lungs that they were going to save the campus by catching anymore rockets before they hit."
"I was thinking about grabbing one of them and taking him out of the company." Rome stated. "Then I thought, hey, what if I take this guy to a place where another rocket landed. I wouldn't have done him a favor, I would've killed him."
"I wonder how many guys got it." I asked.
"Armand lost a leg. The rocket that hit his hootch fell right behind his cot. Some of the guys who were outside when it fell said the rocket blew him threw the hole it made in his roof."
"This was just a messed-up night." Jimmie shook his head.
"Yeah, a messed-up night." I followed.
When we got to the Motor Pool, a half-mile away, it was packed with campus personnel. Some of the guys were laying in the cabs of trucks and jeeps, others were stretched out on the ground underneath them. Some had made tents out of their wet blankets, others were laying on the roadside. Few people were talking. One or 2 were crying.
While the rest of the guys found places to lay down, Jimmie, Rome, Randy, and I found a spot near a gas generator. The generator was being used to power the Motor Pool light poles. Although it was noisy it was warm. Sitting with my back toward it, I could feel my shirt begin to dry.
Looking toward the campus, the black sky was crowned with an smoky orange-red halo coming from the fires in the hootches and the emergency lights rotating on top of the ambulances and fire trucks. We watched the glowing halo as it rose up and down as the fires were brought under control then flared up again.
For the next few hours it remained quiet. Except for a few sightseers driving by in jeeps stopping for a moment or 2 to stare at us, we were undisturbed. None of us had any idea of the shock waiting for us when we got back to the campus in the morning.
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